The Nature of Fear: Part 2: Tactics to Quell Fear

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June 12, 2014

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Dune, Frank Herbert

Click here to read part 1.

After my first night alone in the woods, I had learned that fear is a choice. It came from the fact that I often saw myself as a victim, someone who was generally vulnerable to others’ whims and the world’s catastrophes.

You may be thinking, “Of course you were vulnerable! You were alone, asleep, in the forest! If something had happened, there would have been no way to get help.”

The truth is, I’m much more vulnerable on a highway, where the chance of injury in a way I cannot respond to is much higher. I perceived myself as vulnerable in the woods, but it’s not a fact of the situation. A tiger doesn’t feel threatened alone in a forest. It is the thing that makes others feel threatened.

So, the first step to overcoming the fear of sleeping alone in the woods was realizing that my fear was the result of how I chose to view myself and the world.

That enabled me to question it.

The next step, and the project for the second night, was actually learning to quell fear. As the sun set for the second time on my trip, I wasn’t any less afraid than I had been the night before, but I was more confident in my ability to handle the anxiety that might come up.

Until I saw the signs.

In the privy were three scrawled notes, memorials to those who had passed away in the last year. Those three letters–R.I.P.–have a lot of power to set an overactive imagination in a particular direction. I imagined that my campsite was the lurking place of a serial killer.

So much for my confidence.

But as I lay in my tent that night, I came up with a few strategies to deal with the new terror.

Worrying about the Future is Useless

In The Art of Happiness, H.H. The Dalai Lama points out that worry is useless: If you can do something about it, there is no need to worry, and if you can’t do something about it, there is no point in worrying.

I realized that worrying about being attacked by a serial killer in my campsite was pointless. There was no way I could confirm that I was in any real danger; no matter how much I scouted around, I would always convince myself that I’d missed something.

Furthermore, I wasn’t going to move my camp at that point so there was nothing I could do about my discomfort.

Besides that, I was wasting a lot of energy on a fear of something that might not happen. I had to ask myself why I was causing myself to suffer for something that a) hadn’t happened yet, and b) probably would not happen at all.

I decided it would be better to freak out when I was actually being attacked, and in the meantime, just go to sleep.

Tactic: Don’t waste energy being anxious about things until they happen, unless you can do something to prevent them.

There’s Always More to Fear

The other problem with fear, worry, and anxiety is that there are an infinite number of things to be scared of. I know this doesn’t sound encouraging, but bear with me.

To you in the moment, the things your fear fixates on seem legitimately dangerous, but someone else might not be bothered by those things.

So, you have to ask yourself, why am I scared of this particular thing happening? I could just as easily be scared of something else. But I’m not.

Once you figure out why you’re not afraid of, say bears, but you are afraid of serial killers, you can apply some rational judgement to your fear. In the woods, bears are way more common that serial killers.

Rational judgement tends to destroy fear pretty quickly, since we only fear things we don’t understand (again, I’m talking about nagging fears, worry, and anxiety, not the hot panic fear of actual danger).

Tactic: Use the things you’re not afraid of to undermine the things you are.

Stop Feeding Your Fear

The other helpful strategy I developed was to realize that my fear, anxiety, and worry needed to be fed. The only way they could continue to exert force on me was if I kept thinking about the thing I was worried about

The problem is that anxiety is like an itch: the more you scratch it, the more it bothers you and the more you want to scratch it. The only way to stop the cycle is simply to ignore it for a while.

As soon as I changed my thinking (no small feat, but I practice meditation regularly so I have some control of my mind), the fear subsided. I just kept my thoughts on things that didn’t lead to panic and worry.

Tactic: Realize that fear and worry must be fed with a constant diet of negative, panic-inducing thoughts. Stop the thoughts and you stop the fear.

Of course, doing that required me to understand the last thing.

Fear is Just an Emotion

Most of us think that we are afraid of legitimate concerns. Part of this is that we’re in the emotion, and so it consumes us, but a big part of it is wanting to justify ourselves

For example, if you’re afraid of being fired, for whatever reason, you will try to find ways to justify that emotion. You might start noticing certain gossip at the office, or maybe you’ll even start critiquing your own performance.

All this is done so that your unconscious doesn’t have to admit to being irrational. Humans don’t like to accept that they are irrational and so rationalize their behavior and feelings, either doing so in retrospect (I knew it all along) or in the moment (she is so into me).

Of course, the problem with that is you are making the fear bigger and more real in your mind by magnifying the things in the world that might, possibly, maybe, perhaps make it reasonable and true.

The only way out of that cycle is to see that fear is an emotional response to a worldview. Change your worldview (by accepting that your fear just might not be justified) and the fear loses it’s power.

Tactic: Don’t get attached to your fear. Just like any emotion, accept it for what it is, but don’t judge the world based on your fear.

***

I fell asleep early that second night. Maybe it was the fact that I had hardly slept the night before, or maybe it was that I had finally learned to quell my fear of isolation and the things that go bump in the night.

My last night held no terror for me at all. I had earned a new confidence and looked forward to a restful night under the stars.

Unfortunately, I pitched my tent on a slope and spent all night sliding into the corner and scootching up in my sleeping bag like a deranged inchworm…so I didn’t actually get much sleep at all.

But at least it wasn’t out of fear.

Photo credit: Surian Soosay on Flickr